Sunday, March 15, 2009


The mainstream tradition in American horror movies during the classic studio era was Universal Gothic, built on the then-revolutionary idea that monsters like Dracula or the Wolf Man were "real," as far as the story was concerned, instead of hoaxes perpetrated by mere mortals. Throughout the "golden age" there was another tradition, more irreverent, often hard boiled. In this tradition, the main characters are often wisecracking reporters rather than monsters or their intended victims. This tradition extends from films of the "old dark house" genre, where reporters provided comedy relief alongside scaredy-cat servants and inept cops, through the Poverty Row horrors of the 1940s, where reporters gave writers and directors a way to hold already-campy material at a knowing arm's length.

Michael Curtiz's Doctor X is one of the definitive films from this tradition. Its trailer proclaims the movie's combination of terror and comedy as something new in cinema, but anyone who's surveyed the "old dark house" pictures of the early 1930s knows that that claim is crap. Comedy, horror, and "two-strip" Technicolor -- that's a different story. Curtiz did this one and Mystery of the Wax Museum in the soon-to-be obsolete process. It was Warner Bros.' way of using up the film stock it bought when they expected Technicolor operettas to dominate the market three years earlier.

The film definitely has the Warner Bros. sensibility, embodied by Lee Tracy as the archetypal reporter in search of a lead on the "Moon Killer" case. His nose for news leads him to eavesdrop on the investigation of Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill) and his staff of eccentric scientists, most of whom should be dismissed as suspects because of various physical handicaps. Atwill himself, dubbed by one writer "the mental Lon Chaney" for his ability to be horrific without makeup, would be a suspect as soon as he appeared on screen, and his readiness to cooperate with detectives probably made him more suspect. Nevertheless, he seems honestly determined to crack the case, and just as convinced that one of his colleagues is guilty. In the meantime, Tracy meets cute (or as cute as Warner Bros. gets) with Xavier's daughter -- Fay Wray in an early scream-queen workout.

Xavier has a hare-brained notion that the killer will reveal himself by getting measurably excited by a re-enactment of his crimes staged at the doctor's home. The first experiment gets one of the scientists killed without really giving the killer away. And for a while Doctor X doesn't seem to be going anywhere. There's too much comedy with Tracy in typical ODH situations, and there's a scaredy-cat servant in the mix as well. But the last 15 minutes of the movie are amazing.

Once you rule out Xavier as a suspect, if you have by this point, then one of the other scientists has to have overcome his handicap in order to kill and partially cannibalize people. The truth finally comes out in a riveting sequence featuring one of the maddest scientists of the era turning himself into a monster with "synthetic flesh." He utters the phrase like an incantation as he does a Jack Pierce on himself, the unreal colors of the old process making the scene all the more delirious.

This builds up to a ludicrously effective climax, as Xavier has arranged for himself and his fellow scientists to be handcuffed and helpless during the next reenactment, which features his own daughter as the victim of an all-too-real killer who's all-too-ready to improvise.

Curtiz hammers it together with rapid-fire editing and a hard-hitting fight between the reporter and the killer that has a fiery climax. This last fifth of the film makes Doctor X well worth seeing as an alternative to the Universal tradition. Long live the synthetic flesh, one wants to say, yet memories for movie makers and movie goers alike were short....

* * *

The Return of Doctor X is a sequel to Doctor X the way the movie The Return of the Vampire is a sequel to nothing in particular. It's about as relevant to the original as the typical "Django" film was to the Sergio Corbucci spaghetti western. Vincent Sherman's 62 minute B movie seems to have been Warner Bros.'s way of cashing in on the 1938 horror revival that led to Universal making Son of Frankenstein. The studio went for what it presumed was a bankable name from the past -- though I don't know if they actually re-released the older film prior to this production. To be fair, the title is literally true. The film features a man known as "Dr. X" who returns, in this case from the dead in an echo of Curtiz's Karloff vehicle The Walking Dead (1936). There's also a thematic link between the films, the focus this time being synthetic blood as the means to reanimating corpses as opposed to synthetic flesh as a way of eliminating physical handicaps. As well, the two movies have the generic element of a reporter as lead character in common.

This time the reporter is angling to interview a famous actress, only to find her dead in her apartment -- except that when the cops arrive, after he's phoned in his scoop, the corpse has vanished, and the actress turns up very much alive. "Very much" may be an exaggeration, since the reporter notices a pallor not much improved from when he found her bloodlessly white and dead. Fired by his grumpy editor, the "Wichita Frankenstein" (as he is once called) investigates the mystery independently to redeem his reputation, with the help of a doctor friend. The murder of a professional blood donor raises the doctor's suspicions further, and the appearance of Dr. Quesne (pronounced Kane), an assistant to master hematologist Dr. Flegg, raises them off the charts.

The Return is most famous as the demeaning horror film that was reportedly forced upon a still-struggling Humphrey Bogart, who was still at this time most often playing the heel opposite James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson. If he seems to give a bloodless performance, this was only what the script required. While he does look creepy, this isn't much different from his typical work of the period. Dr. Quesne, aka Dr. X, is just as likely to solve his problems with a gun as by more monstrous means. Nevertheless, he takes over the film toward the end. Having first seemed like a merely odd flunky to more likely villain Dr. Flegg, the scientist's repentance leaves Quesne as the main menace. You can almost see the moment when the writers changed their minds. Once our heroes discover an important part of Quesne's secret, they confront Flegg as the responsible party. He offers to take them into his confidence after asking whether they'd told anyone else about their discoveries. That sounds like he's going to set them up for something, but it doesn't happen, and he throws Quesne, who didn't ask to be reborn, after all, under the bus instead. From there the film lurches to a close with a car chase, a damsel in distress, a shootout at an abandoned farmhouse, and the reporter getting his job back.

Doctor X is more colorful than The Return in more ways than one. The Curtiz film benefits from being a "pre-Code" movie. The benefits include one scene in which Tracy's reporter goes into an obvious brothel to make a phone call and flirt with some of the staff. The scare moments are also far more intense, and the climax more violent, than they are in the Sherman movie, though that may just be because Curtiz was a far superior director. Doctor X is always going to be a nearly-unique cultural artifact, while The Return is never going to be more than a stray sentence in Bogart's career. You can check both out, with commentaries (by nonagenarian director Sherman on The Return) and trailers, on a Warner Home Video double-feature DVD. It's probably worth your time for Doctor X alone.


The Vicar of VHS said...

Wonderful, erudite write-up of these two films. I just saw them for myself last year (as part of the excellent WB "Legend of Horror" set, which would be worth buying if all it had on it was MAD LOVE--a Vicar fave, for obvious reasons :) [also included--Karloff in THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, and a Tod Browning dbl-feature of THE DEVIL DOLL and MARK OF THE VAMPIRE--quite a set]), but DOCTOR X really surprised me with that wild, way-out climax. And the more I see of Fay Wray's non-KONG work, the more in love with her I am. What a beuaty.

As for Bogart's turn in the rather thin-blooded sequel, I admit to taking a guilty pleasure in it, part of which is informed by my worship of all things Bogie, and another perhaps larger part by the memories of the Looney Tunes parody of Bogie in this role, complete with white bunny and leering look. They don't make 'em like that anymore.


It's almost Cronenbergian, isn't it?

Samuel Wilson said...

Vicar, I don't think Bogart was bad in the film, but he didn't really have much to work with beside his own growing star power. As for Fay Wray there's a Columbia picture she did with Ralph Bellamy about deep sea diving whose name escapes me at the moment. It may be "Beneath the Sea" or something like that, but it shows up occasionally on TCM and is pretty cool, not least for showcasing Bellamy before he became the archetypal romantic loser.

Anonymous said...

The Return of Dr. X has always seemed to me to be a jumping off point to some alternate universe where Bogart becomes typecast and ends up in a series of Roger Corman films at the end of his career.

If only Karloff had managed to snag a stage role as good as Duke Mantee, cinematic history might have been very different.

Regarding pre- versus post-code, The Return of Dr. X has one of the most effective horror scenes in cinema, except that most people overlook it because, thanks to the Hayes Office, it's played out as exposition. Remember that scene in the newspaper morgue where they discover the reason that Quesne/Dr. X was sent to the electric chair? IIRC, Xavier was doing research on infant nutrition, and needed to establish a minimum amount of nutrition to keep an infant alive, using orphans. No matter how obliquely they referred to it, I don't think there's any way that any other film has featured anything as horrific as starving orphaned infants to death in your backyard lab.

I can't imagine dramatizing such a thing today. Maybe in a Cat III Hong Kong film, but even then it's doubtful that they would go there.

Samuel Wilson said...

Howard: I think you're right that Bogart's original crime could only be described, not dramatized. You'd need an extended flashback to illustrate the gradual starvation, unless you wanted to show cops raiding his place and discovering the end result, which the Hays Office definitely wouldn't want us to see.